Tactical UAVs: A Supported Unit's Primer

by Captain Raymond D. Pickering

The Hunter tactical unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Army's short-range UAV, may be replaced by the Outrider UAV. Outrider provides coverage of both the brigade and corps-division mission. It operates from 50 to 200 kilometers ahead of the forward line of own troops. The Outrider UAV is going through an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration. Units should begin to see the systems in the summer of 1997.
Recent and unparalleled successes by tactical UAVs in live and virtual war games prove that Army intelligence is capable of supporting 21st century operations. At National Training Center (NTC) Rotation 96-10, Hunter UAVs flown by Alpha Company, 15th Military Intelligence Battalion (Aerial Exploitation), detected more than 60 percent of enemy assets. This resulted in the first defeat of the opposing force (OPFOR) in the defense ever achieved there. Virtual UAVs have repeated these accomplishments during simulation programs known as Combat Synthetic Test and Training Assessment Range (Combat STTAR), an NTC initiative designed to increase the play "box," and numerous Battle Command Training Program rotations. While helpful, the NTC rotations and virtual war games do not always provide all the information your unit needs to know about tactical UAV support in a real combat situation. The intent of this primer is to help your staffs develop UAV procedures and plans, so you are "ready now" to effectively use these "ghost riders" in the sky.

How They Work

In all aircraft, the pilot changes direction of travel, speed, and altitude by sending the commands through a joystick. In manned platforms, orders originate from a cockpit in the aircraft. UAVs receive their directions from a Ground Control Station (GCS) via line-of-sight (LOS) radio waves. A special antenna called a Ground Data Terminal (GDT) sends commands to and receives video imagery from the UAV at ranges up to 200 km. The tactical UAVs can use another UAV to relay information between the GCS and a "mission" UAV. This capability facilitates LOS communications in mountainous terrain, and extends the UAV's operational ranges to the maximum extent.
Tactical UAVs push the combat commander's "eyes" beyond the enemy's front lines without putting human lives at risk. The product comes in the form of live electro-optic and infrared (IR) video. The imagery, with telemetry text on the screen, gives target grid locations with a less than 100-meter error. Ground commanders can receive this timely combat information via several different communications media including:
The capabilities of the standard imagery payloads on both the Outrider and Hunter UAVs are very similar. Their day and night cameras can detect patrols in the open five to seven km distant when flying about 9000 feet above ground level (AGL). Arms, legs, and shoulder-fired weapons are clearly distinguishable at 4000 feet AGL. UAV operators can easily detect tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs), and wheeled vehicles at 32,000 feet (10 km) AGL. They can recognize the difference between these targets at 16,400 feet (5 km) AGL. Distinguishing between different types of tanks and APCs occurs at about 6,000 feet (1.8 km) AGL. Figure 1.

What You Get

The UAV is a point sensor, not a wide-area surveillance asset like Joint Surveillance Target Acquisition Radar System (Joint STARS), Guardrail, or QUICK FIX. It does, however, work extremely well in conjunction with these cueing sensors. Alerted by a Joint STARS indicator of enemy vehicle movement, the UAV can quickly move to the area of concern and determine the types and quantity of vehicles present. If the friendly commander so elects, the UAV can direct fires on the enemy formation and conduct an immediate battle damage assessment. In addition, UAVs can confirm or deny enemy activity at named areas of interest, and conduct point surveillance and route reconnaissance.
The effectiveness of its area searches is dependent upon the size and type of targets, and the terrain. The UAV will have difficulty locating small groups of dismounted soldiers in a 10 km by 10 km mountain range. If the target is a battalion of moving armored vehicles in this same terrain, it will be much easier to locate. Proper intelligence preparation of the battlefield can improve the effectiveness of UAV area reconnaissance by eliminating unlikely target locations.
Tactical UAVs are extremely hard for enemy air defense systems to detect and engage. Threat radars, designed to detect much faster-moving aircraft, skip over these slow-flying sentinels. If detected, the composite airframes provide very small radar cross-sections. Shoulder-fired IR missiles have difficulty getting a positive lock on the small power plants and, in most cases, cannot engage them as targets. The visual and auditory signatures of UAVs are minuscule. The Hunter has a less than 10 percent chance of detection by dismounted troops when operating at 3000 feet AGL. This percentage drops even lower when the UAV is at its higher collection altitudes.

Basic Operational Configuration

The primary elements of a tactical UAV operation include a launch and recovery site (LRS) and a mission planning and control site (MPCS). UAVs take off and land at the LRS in the same manner as do manned aircraft at a runway. Once in the air, the LRS hands control of the UAV over to the MPCS. This element flies the UAV on its collection mission and, when the mission is completed, returns control to the LRS for recovery. In most combat situations, the commander will locate the MPCS forward of the LRS in a split-site configuration. This improves UAV support to the unit and survivability of the runway site. Both elements can co-locate if conditions are favorable.
Launch and Recovery Site. The LRS is the critical node of the UAV equation. Eighty percent of the unit's manpower and equipment are at this site. It requires the most intensive planning and resources. Besides launching and recovering UAVs, soldiers at this site conduct first-, and in some cases, second-echelon maintenance on the aircraft and shelters.
The Hunter and Outrider UAVs can operate from both primitive and paved runways. The surface can be dirt, grass, pavement, or concrete. Landing areas should be clear of tall obstacles such as power lines, trees and masonry structures. The site needs good drainage to ensure the serviceability of the landing area. The rocket-assisted take-off capability of the Hunter UAV eliminates the need for a 1200-foot runway for a rolling takeoff, but the UAV still needs a 600-foot landing area.
Because of its large signature and high priority on the enemy's targeting list, friendly commanders need to take special measures to protect the LRS. The first step is to position the site deeper in friendly territory, reducing the number of enemy artillery tubes that can range it. The second is to assign a combat arms security force for defense. Heavily involved with flight operations, organic UAV soldiers are capable of mounting only a limited defense. Without combat arms or other defensive augmentation, the LRS is a lamb ready for slaughter.
Whether in the offense or defense, commanders must begin planning for the next LRS location. If enough equipment and soldiers are available, the LRS should └ └leapfrog UAV elements forward or backward to the next preplanned LRS site. Using this method, the UAV commander would send a quartering party forward to the next LRS and begin setting up recovery equipment. The old site would launch UAVs while the new LRS was emplacing. These UAVs would conduct their missions and land at the new landing area. The unit could shuttle all or some of the air vehicles in this fashion. This method maintains continuous UAV support to the friendly unit.
Mission Planning and Control Site. Soldiers at the MPCS are responsible for coordinating the UAV collection plan with the supported unit's battle staff, operating the UAV during its mission, and reporting combat information. The MPCS is important, but its loss will not result in a total cessation of UAV support. If destroyed, this element's mission can be assumed by the LRS with some degradation in command, control, and timely reporting. The site is small and can position itself anywhere a tactical operations center (TOC) can locate. The MPCS will have no more than four vehicles, several low-noise generators and one or two radar-type antennas. For communications simplicity, the MPCS is near, if not a part of, the supported unit's TOC. The UAVs' planning range begins at this point. The primary tactical consideration for the MPCS is communications LOS to the supported unit TOC, the UAV or relay, and the LRS. Commanders can remote the GDT with fiberoptic wire to accommodate a TOC in a reverse slope location.
Opinions vary on locating a GCS in the TOC itself. Positive timely reporting and control of the UAV collection effort is maintained by leaving the GCS there. The simplicity and responsiveness provided by this configuration make it a very extremely attractive option for maneuver commanders. A danger exists, however, that a back-seat driving mentality will evolve. Past experiences has shown that battle captains tend to sit in the GCS ordering the payload and UAV operators to fly over here or look at that." Focusing so intently on one system takes attention away from other parts of the battlefield, and leads to both airspace violations and deviations from the collection plan. If the commander wants a live video product in the TOC, an RVT or a hard-wired television monitor may be the solution.

Major Planning Concerns

Airspace, weather, and frequency management are critical components of effective UAV support. NTC rotations and computer simulations have not realistically addressed these issues. If not incorporated into mission planning and operating procedures, these issues could result in the loss of U.S. soldiers on a real battlefield who expected, but did not receive, UAV support.
Airspace. At most NTC rotations and at combat simulation exercises, the UAVs can operate freely behind enemy lines, reacting quickly to changes on the ground. In a shooting war," this may not be the case. The airspace in combat is strictly controlled by the Airspace Control Authority (ACA) to prevent collisions between different types of aircraft and indirect fire projectiles. UAVs receive special flight restrictions from the ACA. This is due to their small size, slow cruising speed, and limited ability to see and avoid other aircraft.
Under the strictest conditions, the ACA controls every aspect of a UAV's flight on the Air Tasking Order (ATO). This order is normally published 24 hours in advance. The ATO encloses the LRS and surveillance areas in restricted operating zones (ROZs) for periods when UAVs are flying. These sites are connected by Standard Army Flight Routes (SAFRs) with defined altitudes, way points and timelines. UAVs cannot deviate from these parameters without approval from the ACA. Since the ATO is difficult to change, and the battlefield changes easily, supported units need to coordinate for both primary and secondary ROZs and SAFRs. Even if the UAV does not use the back-up routes or ROZs, it is better to have them, than to try to haggle for airspace in the middle of a battle.
If more liberal restrictions are in place, the ACA will grant a blanket altitude authorization. Operators will still launch and recover the UAVs in a restricted zone and send it forward on an approved route and altitude. At a designated release point, the UAV can move anywhere laterally or horizontally as long as it remains within a certain altitude window and the blanket boundaries. The capabilities of the payload, enemy air defenses, and high traffic altitudes for manned aircraft determine the operating envelope. Under these conditions, if an unanticipated enemy move is detected, a UAV can quickly be retasked to confirm the action, provide more detailed information, and direct deep fires if needed.
While UAV-supported units like the flexibility and responsiveness of the blanket altitude, traditional combat pilots do not, notably fast movers. Flying at speeds in excess of 500 knots, looking for the target, and monitoring the plethora of cockpit information, pilots are uncomfortable working in close proximity to UAVs. Also, nearly all combat theaters' ACAs are members of the Air Force and pilots themselves. These factors added together could make ACAs extremely reluctant about granting this less restrictive UAV control measure. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF), the experts on UAVs in combat, use a variation of the blanket altitude which addresses the concerns of fast moving aircraft. The IDF creates zones in the blanket airspace defined by clearly identifiable terrain features. If pilots have to punch through the blanket altitude, they can contact the air authority to see if the zone has UAV activity. If it is active, the pilots can determine if they want to break the UAV altitude from that zone or enter from another non-active one. This approach to manned and unmanned airspace deconfliction could prove to be the best solution.
Weather. Weather is a primary concern, as it is for all flight operations, but there are some special considerations for tactical UAVs. Meteorological factors not only influence the performance of the aircraft, but also the intelligence payload. Commands anticipating UAV support for wartime contingencies or exercises must research the area of operation for data on meteorological trends. This information will provide an accurate standard of how much UAV coverage they can anticipate.
Precipitation, winds, and temperature all degrade the operating parameters of UAVs, but icing presents the biggest problem. No tactical UAV in the Army inventory possesses a de-icing capability. When UAVs are operating in temperatures below freezing and in visible moisture, ice develops on the wings and fuselages, increasing drag and weight. This ultimately results in the aircraft crashing. The UAV's small size and power plant exacerbate these conditions. Cross-winds in excess of 20 knots create dangerous conditions for takeoff and landings. An LRS site with a cross-wind runway can
overcome this limitation. High winds (35 knots plus) at operating altitudes also create dangerous flying conditions. Tactical UAVs can operate in light rain. Both the Hunter and Outrider UAVs have their propellers and fuselages treated to deal with precipitation. Light rain does degrade the quality of the UAV imagery, but the product is still exploitable. The Hunter UAV can operate in rainfall up to two inches per hour. The quality of the imagery in these conditions, however, is too poor to gather any information. Precipitation does not drastically degrade operations at the MPCS, but commanders must closely monitor the LRS to confirm water is not building up and that muddy runways are still negotiable.
Fog and low cloud ceilings primarily reduce the effectiveness of the payloads. The IR camera can easily penetrate light fog, but it is not able to penetrate heavy fog or clouds. Combat theaters with low ceilings make UAV operations extremely difficult. In order to collect needed exploitable imagery, tactical UAVs must fly lower, increasing their potential for detection and exposure to enemy air defense artillery gun systems. Also, fog makes landing extremely difficult.
Frequency Management. The electronic tether between the GCS and the UAV is susceptible to interference and jamming. The problem in nearly all cases comes from friendly units. Low-power transmitters in the UAV frequency range do not cause many problems, but high-power transmitters like tropospheric scattering systems do, especially when they are located in close proximity to a GCS. A good unit signal officer can eliminate this problem by providing a sufficient buffer between frequencies and appropriate distances between transceivers.
Frequency management will become much more difficult when each maneuver brigade has its own UAV platoon. UAV-supported units from different corps, divisions, and brigades will share common boundaries, fly the same type of UAVs, and operate them simultaneously. Radio waves, however, do not adhere to unit boundaries. Without proper management, one brigade's GCS could send commands to an adjacent unit's UAV that could receive and execute the electronic order. Video downlinks from different UAVs can become tangled, sending imagery from the first brigade's aerial sensor to an RVT in the second brigade's sector causing serious confusion. Corps and division frequency managers need to direct all UAV-related transmissions. Because of the limited number of frequencies and the transmission ranges, managers may have to do this on an hourly basis.


A picture is worth a thousand words. UAV imagery is worth a thousand lives enemy soldiers killed, friendly soldiers protected. These robotic spy planes are the first step into bringing the MI Branch into 21st century; high technology brings along a need for higher understanding. The key to effectively employing these assets is to know their requirements, capabilities, and limitations. This primer has covered the basics of UAV operations in direct support of tactical units. There is much more to learn. You can find more information in the Army's Draft FM 34-25-2, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or by contacting the Joint UAV Training Center at (520) 533-2750 or DSN 821-2750 or Delta Company, 304th MI Bn at (520) 533-5000 or DSN 821-5000. The Joint UAV Training Center also has information available on the Internet at URL http: //desert-thunder. army. mil /delta/ index.htm
Captain Pickering is the Commander, Delta Company, 304th MI Battalion. He is a graduate of the New Mexico State University ROTC Program and has a bachelor of arts degree in Language and Pre-Law. Past assignments include OIC, Joint UAV Operations Center; S2, 1-5 Infantry Battalion; S3, 102d MI Battalion; GSR Platoon Leader; and DMZ Surveillance (ROK) Platoon Leader. Readers can contact Captain Pickering at (520) 533-3906, DSN 821-3906, and via E-mail at pickeringr@huachuca-emh1.army.mil.